On Teaching Kids

from the editor

over this past weekend, i was a volunteer instructor and adjudicator for a youth theatre festival at my old high school. one of my old classmates (and fellow actor back then as well) is now drama director there, and i was honoured that he would ask me to participate. it’s been a while since i’ve acted, either on stage or camera, but he was asking for my contribution as a former theatre manager and a director so i figured it would all mesh together well and it would be fine.

well, to make a long story short, one of the hour-long workshops i assisted with crashed and burned. i was asked to lead a discussion with the students about running their own theater, and/or starting their own theatre company. unfortunately, i was asked to do this a thursday evening, and presented the workshop saturday morning (don’t ask why there was such short notice…but suffice it to say that i’m not intimidated by improvising and the director has a habit of ‘fudging’ the details). i was reminded of several key points during the first workshop:

— teaching kids is not like teaching adults. whether or not the public school system or society in general is to blame, young people seem less interested in asking their own questions than they are having information presented to them.
— not only are they interested in having information given to them, but in order for the information to hold their interest, it has to personally apply to them right now.

in both of the above points, i failed miserably. first off, i wanted it to indeed be a discussion, but the kids were having none of that. it was the first workshop slot of the day on a sunny saturday morning, and i reckon the last place i wanted to be was sitting in my high school listening to some old dude with big sideburns – not even a working actor – talking about how he essentially flirted with community theatre for half a dozen years. they appear self-interested, but not necessarily self-motivated, and this translated to a boring workshop for them (and an agonizing workshop for me).

secondly – and i can’t take total blame for this – the kids had no concept of running their own theater. they’re more interested in the distinct roles of actor, director, stage manager, costumier…they are focused on the trees, as opposed to the forest. only a handful of the students wanted to pursue theatre at college level anyway, so discussing what i considered a hobby of mine wasn’t topping their priority list, by any stretch of the imagination.

seconds of silence stretched to years. i basically apologized to the students when the hour was finally over.

i want to mention the second workshop i taught. it was an introduction to directing course, and i partnered up with my old drama director (yes, he came back as a volunteer as well).

in that workshop, we gave a brief introduction to the concept of directing, but then picked three volunteers to come up and act out parts and put scripts in their hands for a cold reading. we then stopped the students after about a page’s worth, then asked the audience for input on how we can refine the action on stage to suggest character gestures and the relationships between the characters.

after a suitable run-through of the page and a half, we switched to a short scene between two actors the drama director had prepped before to illustrate the use of props, then concluded with another page and a half of a different short play to reiterate the steps in the directing process.

by contrast with the first workshop, the students were enraptured with the material. they had questions, they enjoyed the material and seeing the scenes change over time, and clearly had fun.

this was pretty much the diametric opposite of the theatre management workshop. of course, it is different material, but one could also have gone through a directing workshop in much the way i discussed theatre management. it stands to reason i could take the principles that succeeded in the directing workshop and make them work for a different subject.

so how do i fix this for next time (if there is a next time)? two words come to mind: immediate and interactive.

one concept i want to work with for next time is the idea of a make-believe exercise. during the management workshop, i discussed briefly the globe theater in london, and how they still do period shakespearean theatre there. i also discussed the basics of putting on a show:

— securing a venue
— having a performance
— promoting the event
— completing administrative duties.

i think the next time i have the workshop, i’ll task the students with acting as the production team that is to mount a production of hamlet at the globe theater. they’ll need to cover the four different areas first, using their brains to determine what work needs to be done to make their show work with a pie-in-the-sky budget. i’ll proof them for each step of the way: who secures the script? who does the casting? who makes sure the rehearsals occur on time? who prints the posters and fliers? what about radio and television adverts? who sews the costumes?

the second phase of the workshop would be discussing another theatre project, this one a much different scale. maybe they’re doing some neil simon or arthur miller; someone like that they would know. furthermore, they would be part of a community theatre with access to a vacant warehouse or perhaps a restaurant. their total budget will be in the neighbourhood of about $250. how will they answer the questions they had before, but now with resource constraints?

in both cases, students will need to present their work in proposal form, at least with a spokesperson delivering their initial assessment to me as the landlord or restaurant manager…

this is a start; i imagine if i do this again i’ll be at least a little more prepared for the work.

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